Friday, March 29, 2013

Into Darkness or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Abramsverse

Followers of this site, and Star Trek fans everywhere, fall into two camps: those who love the Abrams Star Trek movie; and those who struggle to explain and justify their bitter disappointment in the Abrams Star Trek movie to people in the other camp. Most of you know that I fall into the second camp. I am not going to rehash all the arguments. Suffice to say, we saw it, we loved a lot of it, but were ultimately unfulfilled in the ways we know Star Trek can fill our imaginations. I’m not disavowing those arguments. But I also don’t want to hang on to them and sulk. The purpose of this post is to give fans like me motivation to enjoy the new Star Trek movie free of the funk that has built up around the ‘09 movie.

1) It’s just a movie

I hate this argument. If you have ever replied to someone on Trekweb by saying “it’s just a movie, man, it’s not a religion” then you have wandered into the wrong webpage. Please go back to the site where you can watch 5,000 harlem shake videos. That said, it is kind of true. Each movie and episode is a self-contained entity, a product of different writers, producers, directors and actors. If one doesn’t work, it doesn’t necessarily degrade the others. We have no choice but to accept a movie on its own terms. It is the movie that was made, not the one we wish was made. Fixating on what we wish was made will blind us to the good stuff in the movie that was made.

2) Nostalgia is no reason not to like what is new

Have you ever thought, man why don’t they make music as great as when [fill in the blank… Sinatra, Garland, Janis Joplin, 60s Dylan, Nirvana, Mozart] was putting out records? All of these artists are rooted in their own time and culture. The fact that both are gone forever gives us perspective: what aspects of culture have been lost, gained, and that this time right now is precious because it too will fade away. Listening to old music is like time travel. The music’s greatness becomes more than its notes because it allows us to have this experience. That’s nostalgia. Someone could write a song in 2013 that sounds like it could have been on a doo-wop radio station in the 50s. A neat experiment. But if recreating the past is all artists did then there would be nothing new.

Kurtzman said on the DVD commentary that, “Star Trek is classical music and Star Wars is rock and roll—and Star Trek needed to be a little more rock and roll.”

Would it be cool to have a new Star Trek movie written and directed by Nick Myer and scored by James Horner? Maybe. But we already have that movie, and it’s 30 years old. It was and will remain a glorious movie, but attempting to copy it doesn’t mean that the copy will be glorious.

So you long for the good old days when movies were better. Join the club. They’ve been saying “it’s the pictures that got small” since the 30s. So you wish a Star Trek director would have the balls to shoot a 12 minute sequence of the Enterprise leaving drydock…. Except that it wasn’t ballsy. TMP was coming out on the heals of 2001, which acclimated moviegoers to watching extremely slow-moving science-fiction sequences. Plus, audiences wanted a nice long look at the new and improved motion-picture sized Enterprise. Because they hadn’t seen such grand effects shots before, audiences wanted a chance to drink it in.

Today audiences want different things. Just because it is different doesn’t mean that new directors can’t show us the same wonder and excitement and beauty that the old style provided. If we save our nostalgia for our DVD collections, we just might see all of that in the new movies.

3) These are not the same characters that the old gang portrayed

A big part of my disappointment had to do with ‘09’s inability to make me believe that I was watching the earlier lives of the 60s era characters. First, I felt like I was promised an actual prequel. Second, like all serious fans, I’d been daydreaming about such a prequel for years. Third, some of the actors so embodied the originals (especially Quinto and Urban and even Pine) that I was even more bitter that they didn’t write a by-the-book “when they were young” prequel. So I nagged about how they changed Kirk’s upbringing and tossed out his career history, and how this couldn’t really be Chekov, and I wasn’t feeling Scotty or Sulu, etc.

But the movie was never intended to be that. A novel or comic book can do a canonical prequel without any problem because there is no element of an actor’s performance imbued in the character. With film, you cannot separate the actor from the character. The new cast was told by all involved, including the original surviving cast, that to make it work, they must make the characters their own. Otherwise, they are just doing impersonations. The essence of the character is still in the script and guides the performance, but the actor puts it to life in their unique way. If we fixate on “She’s no Nichelle Nichols” we miss the opportunity to be seduced by a new actor and a new interpretation on the character.

Two examples. Does the Chris Pike we see in ’09 bare any resemblance to Jeffrey Hunter’s Pike? None whatsoever. Abrams didn’t even use Hunter as a model; he used JFK. But who would rather not have Bruce Greenwood’s Pike around? Even I didn’t care about “canon” when it came to the new version of Pike.

Yelchin’s Chekov. Yelchin has said that he thinks Chekov was the “weirdest” character of the original series. That’s an interesting point of view. His Chekov is a bit different than the original. Over 3 or 4 movies Yelchin might be able to create a Chekov that is just as endearing, if not more so, than Koenig’s. They all might. The new characters should not be any less valid.
4) Broad brush strokes are still brush strokes

When I first saw ’09 I was irked by how in-your-face the story and characters were presented. Kirk is a rebellious but brilliant fighter. Why, and how did he come to be this way? We’re never shown or told? Nero is a “Romulan ball of rage.” Why? The flimsy explanation hardly matters compared to his over-the-top behavior and crimes. Kirk just happens to be born in the exact time and place that Nero appears from the future. Kirk just happens to crash land on the same continent of the same planet where Spock is marooned. This planet is close enough to Vulcan than someone on its surface could watch Vulcan’s destruction, but far enough away that it was not at all affected by this destruction (?!). Vulcan is destroyed as a plot device to make Spock emotionally unstable (just killing his family would be too small?) Kirk is promoted to captain without ever having graduated from the Academy. See what I mean about broad brush strokes. The movie was not as nuanced, not as literary, not as subtle as I thought Star Trek should be.

But re-watching it this month, I see that if you accept the way he’s telling the story, you can better enjoy the story that is being told. And it is a coherent, emotional, character-driven story. All those ham-fisted plot points land like a steady, relentless stream of punches pummeling toward the inevitable conclusion.

We are being firmly guided by a storyteller’s steady (ham-fisted) hand. Abrams and his team have a clear vision and they put that vision on screen with skill. He has figured out how to do a Trek movie in a way that suits modern audience tastes, and still is true Trek. We’re not going to have any more like Insurrection or Nemesis where there is one foot in the past and one foot in the present and the whole thing falls down. Nimoy himself has said that Abrams has figured out how to “elevate [Trek] to another level that it had not been able to reach before.” Our imaginative Trek playground has never been this big or detailed or visually realistic.

5) Benedict Cumberbatch is the greatest actor in his prime to play a Star Trek villain since… ever.

Montalban, Plummer and McDowell were all in their 2nd and 3rd acts when they were movie bad guys—not that that is a point against them. (Hardy was in his dress rehearsal with Nemesis—but even Laurence Olivier would have gone unnoticed with a script like that). Cumberbatch is just breaking as a capital “A” actor, and will be with us for a long time. The actor’s youth is a necessary pairing with the youth of Kirk and crew, and the energy of Abram’s style. Similarly, Montalban, Plummer and McDowel were all relative peers with the crew they were trying to destroy. Cumberbatch will be a joy to watch. As long as they give him good lines.

There you have it. All the reasons you need to lighten up and enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness. Here’s another one: Carpe Diem. You never know when you’ll get another chance to get excited to see a Star Trek movie in the theaters. One day, sooner than you think, another director will make a Star Trek movie. He will be told, "Do it like J.J.!" But he won’t be J.J. He won’t have Abrams’s vision or skill set, and the studio may not allow him the elbow room to use his own vision and skill sets. If you think the movies now are hollow, just wait for that one. Then you may be nostalgic for Abrams Star Trek.